Roast Pork Buns (char siu bao)

Philadelphia is blessed with a vibrant Chinatown. I’ve written before about Chung King Garden, but last night it was all about the bakery. We stopped at a little joint on Race at the corner of 10th called Hong Kong Bakery. [UPDATE: this has since become one of our favorite spots in Philadelphia. Try the coconut bread for $1.50 a loaf!] It had a selection of bubble teas and shakes, of which I’m dying to try the durian shake. There’s also a small bakery case with a fairly typical selection of bao, or buns, with different savory and sweet fillings. They’re cheap, usually less than a dollar each, and surprisingly filling.

There’s lots of great stuff– coconut buns, thousand-year egg buns, lotus buns– but the addictive glory is to be found in the roast pork buns. These little beauties are the Cantonese answer to the barbecue sandwich– oh, but there’s so much more to it than that.

The selection of English-language information on the history of Chinese cuisine available on the internet is pretty thin, so I’m hoping to flesh this out a bit once the big honking Chinese cookbook I ordered arrives. My knowledge of Chinese food and culture is extremely slender. My knowledge of the history of immigrant populations in the US is a bit better, so this analysis focuses on that.

First of all, the bun. It can be steamed, baked or fried, but steamed is traditional. It’s about the size of a hamburger bun. The dough is slightly sweet and usually coated with an egg wash to get a nice golden brown sheen on top. The filling varies, but the basic ingredients are barbecued pork and chopped onions. They’re often suspended in a sweet, dark pink sauce.

The beautiful bun has recently been the target of calumny: a newswire story about Chinese bakers putting chopped cardboard in their pork buns was shown to be a fraud. Does anybody else find the Chinese food-adulteration panic just a wee bit racist? I mean, it’s grounded in legitimate concerns, but it also plays on the long-standing stereotype that Chinese people eat gross things. (Which is why I have a problem with the whole premise of ‘Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,’ but that’s another post.)

The Worldwide Gourmet provides some background in the form of legend (though couched in some extremely unfortunate language):

On six successive occasions Liang successfully repelled the fearsome barbarian tribe commanded by Meng Huoh. The seventh time, both parties having fought honorably, Meng Huoh bowed before Liang’s strategy and wisdom. Everyone joined in the great march back to the Shu kingdom. On the way they came to a river. According to barbarian tradition, in order to cross the river a human life first had to be sacrificed and the head thrown into the water to ensure that the current could be safely crossed. Liang, in his great wisdom, did not wish to kill an innocent man, since his ghost could return to claim other victims, and so he ordered his cook to prepare a large steamed round loaf shaped like a head which he threw into the river. Everyone made it across without incident. Since that day, and for a long time afterwards, little steamed buns were made in the shape of heads, more oval than round. These buns are called “mantow” or “mantou” which phonetically is the same word, referring both to buns and the heads of barbarians!

Other sources put the date closer to the tenth century, during the Sung dynasty, when the dim sum tradition became popularized by the teahouses that catered to Silk Road travelers.

In Hong Kong, dim sum is generally served in the morning up until midday. Dim sum came to the US with the Chinese diaspora. Chinese workers have been in the US since it was founded; during periods of rapid expansion, they were encouraged (not to mention tricked or forced) into immigrating to the US to work as laborers and miners, particularly in the booming gold mining industry. The Transcontinental Railroad in particular was built largely by Chinese workers. However, as the 19th century wore on and workers all over the US began organizing and demanding their rights, the US ruling class responded by using Chinese workers as scapegoats. (It wasn’t the robber barons’ fault that wages were so low, you see, it was the ‘Yellow Peril’ undercutting American workers and depressing wages! Sadly, that logic still works for racist politicians today.) In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, legalizing discrimination against Chinese immigrants and limiting their further entry into the country. (You can read a great San Francisco Chronicle article on its effects here.) The act was not repealed until 1943.

Chinese food, however, began its rise among the non-Chinese population in the US in the 1890s, when fashionable urban types began eating chop suey. (The origins of which are disputed, but everyone agrees it’s an entirely American dish.) Various iterations of Chinese cuisine eventually became part of New York City culture, as Chinese ideas about food met and mingled with Italian, Jewish and other influences on the Lower East Side, and from there the food Americans now know as ‘Chinese food’ was exported around the country. Today, every town that has a dot on the US map has a Chinese restaurant, and almost all of them serve this Americanized version of Chinese food. In the Chinatowns found in major cities, though, Chinese food is still made for the tastes of immigrants from China, and you can find restaurants specializing in specific cuisines (Szechuan, Fujianese, etc., as well as dishes from Taiwan and Hong Kong). This is where you’ll find dishes with real spice and flavor, meats and ingredients that challenge American tastes (jellyfish, anyone?), fresh handmade tofu and noodles, and, of course, roast pork buns. If your Chinatown is particularly diverse, you may also be able to find some of the many ways in which the roast pork bun has been adapted to other Asian cuisines, like those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Macau and Hawaii.

That’s why I love Chinatowns, all of them. New York City continues to lead the American palate down exciting new roads, and I hope the next few years will bring more Chinatown cuisine to the rest of the country. Life is too short for us to waste our time on bland General Tso’s.

What’s that? You’d like some recipes? Of course you would:

One “Lady Gwenhwyvar Lawen fitzHerbert APF, OW” (if that is her real name!) has posted a short history of dim sum with some tasty-looking recipes.

Jessica at Su Good Eats tried two recipes (with great photos).

Homey Cooking also provides a recipe.

Enjoy! And don’t forget to

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4 Responses to “Roast Pork Buns (char siu bao)”

  1. peterlore Says:

    Just maybe a poll: Do Philly residents have a favorite Vietnamese Restaurant? I have a few, but I’m more of a “Bun” man than a “Pho” man.

    Good Post. Keep it up. I like the documentary style of it.

  2. David Schur Says:

    I am so angry that i didn’t look at your website, I walked through china town for around 5 minutes waiting for my sister in law and couldnt find a bakery in time.. if only.. if only..!

  3. therealpotato Says:

    Oh, what a shame! I hope you get to go back soon. Walk down Race St., you’ll find lots of them!

  4. Brunch Redefined: A Philadelphia Dim Sum Roundup « The Real Potato. Says:

    […] written before about dim sum; it’s a tradition with a long history that dates back to the Silk Road, when […]


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